The Cartographic Perspective

Statue of Hercules carrying the globe

Last year I wrote an article on the principle of fallibility (Emphasising the fact that the complexity of the world far exceeds our capacity to fully comprehend it). Within the article, I introduced a useful analogy to help me get this point across (that I have since coined the Cartographic Perspective). Since writing that article in 2018 I have found this outlook extremely useful—and so I would like to present the following piece as a more meticulous explanation of this idea. It is my strong belief, that this forthcoming analogy serves as an excellent learning tool for raising self-awareness towards bias and to inspire critical thinking.

“The obvious can sometimes be illuminating when perceived in an unhabitual way.”

— Daniel Quinn
Topographic map of the ruins of Thebes, by Émile Prisse d’Avennes (1878) From Histoire de l’art égyptien.

Take a look at the following map above. It is a two-dimensional 19th century depiction of Thebes, Greece. As this map is a two-dimensional depiction of a three-dimensional environment, it illustrates a lower-resolution impression of reality. You would never find yourself confusing this map of Thebes with the actual Thebes. But despite this obvious fact, many people do in fact confuse the map with the territory all of the time.

But before we get into that, it’s important to note the purpose of a map. A map constitutes a symbolic impression of some space, that emphasises the relationships between certain elements, such as landmarks and geographic features. As we all know, this is particularly useful for navigation purposes. But not all maps would be suitable for achieving the navigational goals you have in mind. Let’s imagine you had a map portraying the entire earth—such a map would be ill-suited for helping you hike across the French Alps for instance, whilst any regular road map would be utterly useless for a pilot flying a plane.

A map simply represents a useful perspective of a particular environment at a specific moment in time. It will always fall short of portraying the actual environment it is attempting to portray.

If any map was truly capable of representing reality with 100% accuracy, it would literally need to be the size of the territory itself to account for every single detail—each leaf, each rock, and each grain of sand. In addition, this map would need to be capable of shapeshifting in real-time to comprehend any new variables that arose—like a huge slab of rock falling into the sea for example.

A map’s utility is confined to its capacity of resembling a particular perspective of reality at a given point in time.

Mapping the world

Like map projections, human brains also must create impressions of reality via various methods of simplifying an unfathomably complex world—all so the appropriate actions we each ought to take in life can be identified.

The German-born Swedish Psychologist David Katz described this process quite well when he once said:

“A hungry animal divides the environment into edible and inedible things. An animal in flight sees roads of escape and hiding places.”

Much like a regular map, the perspectives we are each forming of the external world are lower-resolution depictions of reality—incapable of portraying all of the details of our world and limited to rendering specific details about the environment that have been chosen on intuitive merit.

To give you an example. When you next find yourself baffled at the unexpected behaviour of another person, you will find yourself at some point reflecting on the moment in question to try and figure out why this person acted this way. But when you do this, when you go into your head and try to put all of the pieces together—you are not seeing reality as it happened. The mental picture that you will form will be contingent on:

1.) Your memories. Which are limited to the details you have observed and retained. (Note: Memories are well known to not be an exact reproduction of past experiences but instead constitute an imperfect process that is prone to various kinds of errors and distortions.[1]) and;

2.) Your subjective interpretation of the other person’s motivations, which you don’t have access too. (Note: In a previous article: Mental models: Cognitive Weaponisation I discuss the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ which explains how we commonly miscalculate the appropriate reason that explains another person’s behaviour.)

In addition to these points, you are almost certainly going to lack significant key details that are pertinent to accurately understanding the entire matter at hand. So in effect, you must conjure up a mental impression that differs from the actual state of affairs.

So to understand why this person acted in a particular way, your brain will produce a hazy, simulated model of this other person that has been conjured up from the details that you have extracted from the external world. To put it another way, the brain comes up with a useful map that attempts to make sense of the situation so that you can successfully navigate between these issues.

The haze of memories.

But this cognitive map of yours is not a representation of reality as it wasrather, it is at best a significantly lower-resolution impression of it. It is my aim in this article to remind you not to confuse the map for the territory itself. I want you to imagine that the process by which you attempt to understand the world, is much like a cartographer cultivating a map—if only to serve as a means to better understand your own thinking and nothing more.

The resolution of your maps

I would like you to take a look at the historic map below. Its creator was a cartographer from Nuremberg named Henricus Martellus who created this map around 1490 in Italy.

Insularium illustratum, by Henricus Martellus Germanus (est. 1490)
British Library, London, United Kingdom

Take a glance at Europe for a moment. As I’m sure you can agree, the accuracy of the Mediterranean sea and its surrounding coastlines are quite noticeable relative to the increasingly mistaken portrayals of faraway lands. This contrast was simply due to the extensive cartographic knowledge outlining the Mediterranean region that Martellus would have had available to him at the time—compared to the shortage of information available to him for outlining areas afar.

This misrepresentation of the world’s geography in 1490, provides us with a useful analogy to understand how we each form similar conceptions about our everyday life.

If we ever find ourselves challenged to clarify our position regarding a matter that is unfamiliar to us, far away from us, or highly complex (like a political situation in another country) it is quite likely that we will conjure up unfounded generalisations and vague reasoning to formulate our impression of the situation—much like the depiction of Eurasia in the previous map.

On the other hand, if we are challenged to clarify our position on a matter that corresponds with an active interest of ours, close to us, or is simple in its causality (like a family dispute) we are much more likely to provide a more considerate impression of the subject, much like the coastlines surrounding the Mediterranean sea in Martellus’ map.

Therefore, the cognitive impressions we create concerning matters of interest, locality and simplicity tend to be much better cared for and more dependable to utilise—while the cognitive impressions we create concerning matters of insignificance, distance and complexity, will be highly distorted by necessity (similar to the vague portrayal of the Eurasian continent above), or left out entirely if we lack awareness of a particular thing (much like North America was absent in the map above). There is a very significant consideration that we can take away from these points. You do not know beforehand if your map of reality is wrong or where this map of yours is wrong. An iron-willed allegiance to one’s maps makes you think that you understand reality much more than you actually do. Our resolute allegiance to our maps increases our propensity to mistake the map for the territory! So tread carefully, knowing that the essence of truth typically lies well beyond the features of your map. Leave room for the unforeseen and the unknown in your outlook!

The social value of your maps

A messy book store with a significant collection of books.

As we are social creatures, the cognitive maps we are continuously forming about our world are not only befitting to our own needs but are highly applicable to the service of our loved ones, community and more. This whole affair provides an ample opportunity to earn significant social capital if you are capable of cultivating useful cognitive maps of reality that benefit other people.

Whenever you purchase a book of non-fiction, you are essentially purchasing another person’s map of reality, which you are hoping provides you with a higher-resolution understanding of a particular issue that interests you. This is the same when we pay to watch a live public speaker or when we listen to a podcast.

If you make an effort to cultivate useful maps in your life, then you will always have the opportunity to present your intellectual wares to the global marketplace of ideas. There will always be a less fortunate soul out there, clinging onto a defective map about a particular issue that you could aid with your particular perspective on it.

Let me be clear here and state that a satisfactory map in the global marketplace of ideas does not need to be perfect to be effective. It does not even need to be of the sort that can address all of the concerns in which it could be theoretically attacked by critics. A satisfactory map of reality simply has to improve upon a map that is used by someone else. As a case in point, this very blog represents my own outlet for putting cognitive maps of mine into the global marketplace of ideas. And from time to time, after posting an article I will see a comment from a critic who is quick to point out an error or two who evidently dismisses the entire idea outright. In the same comment string, a commentator will thank me for offering a perspective that has helped them. So what can we deduce from this? The global marketplace of ideas has a wide array of customers looking for useful perspectives (maps) all of the time. But not every customer will be satisfied with what you have to offer. Nonetheless, this is hardly a reason to be discouraged as there are countless numbers of people out there who are in need for improved perspectives on an innumerable amount of topics.

The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas [and] the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

This is why I believe it is highly advantageous to spend some of your spare time cultivating highly useful cognitive maps that you can communicate effectively with others. Not only for the social value that is on offer, but to passionately engage in something that will result in your own personal growth. Having your ideas exposed to the scrutiny of the crowd awakens our learning muscles like a splash of cold water. It challenges you to sling your ideas against the ruthless judgement of the crowd—daring the masses to banish your ideas if they can. This is why I’m a stern advocate for starting your own blog to capitalise on this opportunity.

The biological perspective

As far as I can tell, this entire phenomenon that I am speaking about (The need to cognitively simplify our reality) is the consequence of two fundamental factors:

1) Biological limitations: Humans perceive their world through a lens of evolved adaptions.

2) Information processing: Humans translate the properties of the world into useful units of information.

For the sake of this article, I am only concerned with summarising the latter point. If our brain is continuously translating high-resolution information from reality into useful low-resolution units of information—then what exactly does our brain think is useful?

Human behaviour is grounded firmly in human motives—and these motives are typically determined by human desires. These intrinsic desires of ours are driven by our needs—survival needs, security needs, sexual needs, well-being needs, and identity needs which in turn, shapes how we each understand the world around us and the opportunities that we identify—in other words, our internal impressions (our maps) are shaped by our desires to help us navigate this world to attain them. Much like the hungry animal who divides the environment into edible and inedible things.

When our maps differ

What is most fascinating about this whole affair is that while our needs share considerable overlap with the needs of other people, our ability to attain them differ greatly from one another. I personally don’t need to stress too much about gaining access to clean water, but for somebody who does, their worldview will be greatly slanted to reflect this pressing concern.

We are each cultivating cognitive maps about the world that are highly prejudiced to support our own needs and not that of others. In the latter case, some people must cultivate a worldview that is useful towards the attainment of clean water. (That may even have to slant itself in a way which would directly conflict with truth in the objective sense.)

I would even go as far as saying that this inherent bias of ours isn’t concerned with mapping truth in the objective sense at all, but rather, supporting truths that will be useful to attaining our needs. Even altruism is arguably motivated by the will to attain these needs—the sustainability of a well-functioning society is something that greatly benefits our needs, which altruistic attitudes can help facilitate.

In addition, the historic corpus of religious scripture throughout the history of this planet is arguably a biological necessity when large groups of people must live in harmony with one another. Religious scripture represents a grand cognitive map that guides the conduct of millions of people—aiding the well-being, trust, cooperation and security of all those who follow its teachings. I certainly can’t think of anything more useful than that (despite the objective frailties).

However, I can’t shake the fact that the most authentic and productive means of human cooperation moving forward is the outlining of facts that adhere to an objective narrative. An effort to discuss and share the real contour lines of this game beyond the subjective contour lines that we intuitively outline for ourselves on a day to day basis. When I interact with people sharing different world views and customs than I, comfort and goodwill are typically formed upon the topography of ideas that we are each unable to disprove. Our globalised world that has been galvanized by the information age has exposed the maps of the everyman to the maps of the global citizenry like never before. And as far as I can tell, this continual exposure to countless unfamiliar maps that are highly incompatible with one another has played a significant role in the ongoing cultural tensions that we can witness right now—a ‘narrative conflict’ of sorts.

In summary, this is a useful concern to reflect upon when we find ourselves in a dispute with others relating to our convictions. As this outlook enables us to willfully separate the disputed ‘narratives’ from the disputed ‘territory’. To put this in another way, this outlook ought to bring to your attention that a dispute is typically an egotistical conflict between maps of reality and very rarely concerned with finding the best rendition of the actual state of affairs. This allows you to better understand how to steer the conversation in relation to your goals if you are aware of the type of debate you are in. If you are interested in reading more about a ‘narrative conflict’, I wrote a short bit about it here which covers the various types of arguments we can find ourselves in.

A thought experiment

Imagine you were trying to make sense of a serious international political situation. At first, you would depend upon your memories involving the elements in question to get a sense of what is happening. These memories of yours will be distorted, outdated, prejudiced towards your own needs, (whether you know about them or not) and lacking in many key details. In addition, news outlets will contribute to your map’s resolution through the prejudiced narratives that they each provide—followed by additional influence from friends and colleagues who will likely contribute to your map by pressing you with some additional details. Soon, this cognitive map of yours will be precisely what you believe is going on with the political situation in question. If anybody was to ask you for your opinion on this particular political event shortly after your deliberation on the matter, it would be this very map that you have cognitively cultivated that would represent your outlook. But you must remember, the map is not the territory.

Do you respect the limits of your ability to track the causality of complex global events?

And here’s the thing—unless you are working for a state intelligence agency with a formidable set of resources at your disposal, that map of yours is probably a very poor representation of what is actually going on out there. Quite similar perhaps to what Martellus believed 1490’s China looked like in the map above compared to what it actually looked like at the time—your brain is forced to map an unfamiliar, complex environment with what little information it can get.

With that being said, any imperfections in your outlook concerning a notable political event would be perfectly understandable—after all, you probably don’t have the time, nor the necessity even, to investigate a situation like this thoroughly. Most of us are therefore depending upon these types of glorified simplifications to make sense of all the situations around us each and every day. And you would be wise to bring this realisation to the forefront of your attention. If we are not aware of the limitations of these inner maps of ours, we are blinded to the fact that our maps are always fallible. In other words, imperfect. This principle is known as the principle of fallibility, and the overlooking of it can lead to the planning of ineffective strategies, infuriated peers (who have previously suffered from putting faith into your faulty interpretations) and the frequent failure to identify advantageous opportunities around you.

I strongly believe that being aware of this blind spot is imperative if one wishes to build a world view that they can seriously depend upon. It demands a certain humbleness—an admission that your maps are always imperfect compared to how things actually are. To understand the significance of this principle—the principle of fallibility, is to admit that you are fallible, that is, to accept that your outlook isn’t perfect. It is to accept that we all must use simplified paradigms to explain complex phenomenon. And if you refuse to accept your own fallibility, you are essentially saying that your ‘internal map’ represents reality as it actually is. In other words, believing the map is the territory. And that is a big problem.

It’s one thing to be confident in your outlook as a result of possessing evidence and sound reasoning—but it’s an entirely different thing to be closed off to the idea that your view can not be improved upon in some way. When you embrace your fallibility and see that your maps can always be of a higher resolution, it becomes clear that our understanding of the world is a constant work in progress and that we can truly learn something from anybody. And however cliché that may sound, it is true. I guarantee you that each person in this world has an interpretation of one particular aspect of reality that is more precisely mapped than your own. (whether or not that information is useful to you, however, is another matter entirely.) But the point remains. 

In summary, the cartographic perspective reminds us not to be so rash in our judgements of the world and not to confuse the map for the territory. It permits us to accept the limits of our cognitive abilities and challenges us to show humility in the face of this fact. Be that as it may, the cartographic perspective dares us to strengthen the impressions that we make about the world to the best of our ability through courage, reason and focus.

References

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John Fee

John Fee

A British Army veteran and security specialist with over a decade of international security experience. Student of Peace and Conflict studies. Adolescent stoic and a fond admirer of Western culture.

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